Juana Ramírez de Asbaje y Santillana (1651-1695) was born in San Miguel Nepantla, near Mexico City. Her mother was a criolla (of Spanish descent born in New Spain, as Mexico was then known) and her father Basque. That they were not legally married, and that her father quickly disappeared, cast a shadow over certain aspects of Juana's, not least the creation of a stable place in society.
The little information we have about her early years comes from her famous defence of women's right to learning, in which she talks of her 'inclination' towards letters 'from the first light of reason', illustrating this with evocative anecdotes:
- Aged three, she followed her sister to a girls' school and persuaded the schoolmistress to teach her to read, which she did 'in a short space of time'
- She stopped eating cheese for its damaging effects on the brain, and would cut her hair as a useless adornment when she failed in her learning
- Aged six or seven, on learning that there existed in Mexico City schools and universities, she tried to persuade her mother to allow her to disguise herself as a boy so that she could attend
- Unable to do so, she read from her grandfather's library, learning so much that people were amazed by her knowledge 'at an age when many have not even learned to speak well'
At the age of about eight, Juana was sent to the home of relatives in Mexico City, where she stayed until her presentation at the court of the new vice regal couple in 1664.
She very quickly became a favourite of the vicereine, Leonor Carreto, and in this vibrant environment of festivals, ceremony and coquetry Juana shone. This was the first in a series of important relationships with viceroys; It was a later vicereine, the Countess of Paredes, who backed the first publication of Sor Juana's work in Spain (Castalian Inundation, 1689).
The fame of her learning was such that in 1664 the viceroy put her to the test against 40 learned men of the city, whose questions, he later said, she demolished 'like a royal galleon defending itself against a few rowing boats'.
In 1667 Juana made her first attempt to take the veil when she entered the Convent of the Barefoot Carmelites. But she left after only a few months, for this order did not provide the environment she sought, and in 1669 she entered the Convent of Saint Paula of the Order of St Jerome, where she stayed until her death.
Of her decision to become a nun, Sor Juana said that 'although I knew that this life had many things that were repugnant to my nature… it was less that the abhorrence I felt for marriage'.
In fact, the convent was the only space possible for a woman who wanted to pursue a life of learning and writing, and the Hieronymite Order allowed her a high level of autonomy. Most of her writing, both sacred and secular, and often on commission, dates from her years in the convent.
The relatively lax regime of the Hieronymites allowed her to receive visits, and from behind the convent grille she held what might best be described as 'salons', where she discoursed with the most learned men of the period. It was in this setting that she delivered a brilliant challenge to a famous sermon on the greatest acts of love by Jesus Christ.
She was asked by the Bishop of Puebla to write it, and in 1690 he published it (according to Sor Juana without her consent) as the 'Letter Worthy of the Wisdom of Athena', with a preface in which, using the pseudonym Sor Filotea, he advises her to devote herself to areas of study befitting a nun.
Shaken by what she saw as an act of betrayal, Sor Juana waited three months before she delivered her 'Response of the Poetess to the Most Illustrious Sor Filotea', a virtuoso defence of the right of woman to an intellectual life, deftly matching the autobiographical with a dazzling account of female learning and a defiant decoding of men's (and the Church's) attitudes towards women of letters.
Yet, the 'Response' is also an act of contrition, for she understood that she was answering to the hierarchy of the Church, and that she would soon be forced into silence. It was Sor Juana's last significant work.
Soon after, she gave up her extensive library and renounced her earthly ways. She retook her vows, signing her protestation of faith in blood. And she prepared, and again signed in blood, her death certificate, asking her sisters to fill in the date of the death of 'the worst woman that has ever been, I, the worst in the world'.
She died on April 17 1695 in an outbreak of the plague.
Professor of Latin American Cultural Studies
King's College, London